Just days before the 2004 federal election, there was a memorable exchange of verbiage that helped to define both the narrative and the outcome of the campaign. After Alberta Premier Ralph Klein’s curiously-timed announcement that his government planned to deliberately challenge the restrictions of the Canada Health Act (with details to come two days after election day), Paul Martin bravely rode his moral high horse to the defense of the ideals of public health care. Stephen Harper and the Conservatives were among those trampled by the stampeding platitudes.

Calling Klein and Harper a “deadly duo,” Martin charged that Klein was “hoping he’ll have a silent partner in Ottawa by the name of Stephen Harper, someone who will not speak up for the Canada Health Actâe¦ Well, unlike Stephen Harper, I do care. I will look Ralph Klein in the eye and I will say ‘no.’ Unlike Stephen Harper, I will defend medicare.”

So, pardon us for asking Paul, but how has that strategy been working for you? When you looked Ralph Klein in the eye, did he meet your gaze or look away? When you said “no” did he stop what he was doing or did he ignore you and go ahead with his plans for privatization? When you defended medicare with your brave words of support, did all of the problems of the health care system suddenly disappear? If, as it seems, this strategy hasn’t worked quite as well as you said it would, isn’t it time to come up with a new strategy?

The thing is, Paul, I don’t think that you’re really all that interested in the state of the health care system unless you can use it as a club with which to beat the Conservatives. While there’s little doubt that a Harper-led government would do virtually nothing to stop the rush to privatization (and would probably do plenty to encourage it), Canada’s health care system hasn’t exactly prospered under your tender loving care, has it?

It’s funny that, in the same speech in which you promised to stand up to Ralph Klein, you also said that you would repair health care “come hell or high water” since those are exactly the same words that you used in your 1995 budget speech to describe your resolve on fighting the federal deficit. And, for that, you deserve a lot of the blame for a great deal of the hell and most of the high water that has plagued health care since you started cutting transfer payments to the provinces. Sure, your balance sheet looks good (in fact, if you were stating the numbers honestly, it would look even better), but health care isn’t doing so well. You wouldn’t have needed to “fix health care for a generation” — or at least say that you were doing so — if you hadn’t already broken it for all generations.

The skirmish is as much about Alberta provincial politics as it is about federal politics. Ralph Klein doesn’t have any real threats to his hold on power in Alberta (except for the leadership aspirants in his own caucus), and that can’t be much fun for him. He needs to keep picking fights with Ottawa or he gets bored. Opposing same sex marriage excites the social conservatives, but ideological conservatives need something more substantive (and also less futile).

If Klein simply went on doing what Alberta and most other provinces (most notably Martin’s own province of Quebec) have been doing for years without any fanfare or repercussions from the federal government, few Canadians outside of those involved in the health care system and organizations such as the Council of Canadians would have noticed that public health care was being whittled away. But, Klein wanted to show Albertans that he was standing up to the “eastern bastards” that he once hoped would “freeze in the dark.”

Klein’s actions and words have clearly hurt Harper politically, but there is no reason that they should have helped Martin, who has virtually no credibility on health care (rather than helping NDP leader Jack Layton, who has considerable credibility in this area). Martin may want to present himself as the champion of public medicare, but if all he can manage is looking recalcitrant premiers in the eye and saying “no” then he’s like Superman on an all-kryptonite diet.

Of late, Martin hasn’t even managed that much. After the Supreme Court said that governments needed to do more than guarantee access to waiting lists if they want to prohibit for-profit providers from moving into their turf, Martin said little and did nothing. After Quebec Health Minister Philippe Couillard indicated that he personally supported the direction implied by the court decision, Martin not only did nothing, but also said nothing (apparently, it’s only Alberta politicians who he can look in the eye and tell them “no”). After Klein launched his so-called third way on health care (which is getting pretty close to the American way), Martin responded with nothing but hot air.

When it comes right down to it, after the rhetoric is stripped away, Paul Martin isn’t really that much “unlike Stephen Harper” on health care. Neither of them can be trusted to protect it against the growth of for-profit health care.


Scott Piatkowski

Scott Piatkowski is a former columnist for rabble.ca. He wrote a weekly column for 13 years that appeared in the Waterloo Chronicle, the Woolwich Observer and ECHO Weekly. He has also written for Straight...